Bay View Entertainment and Retromedia Presents A Film Directed By Richard Hilliard
Starring Sheldon Pearson, Cindy Ellis, Babette Bardot
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The life and works of the Marquis de Sade have long been staples of the exploitation film, primarily in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when the writer inspired filmmakers as diverse as Jess Franco (DEADLY SANCTUARY, JUSTINE, EUGENIE), Pier Paolo Pasolini (SALO), Peter Brook (MARAT/SADE) and Samuel Arkoff (DE SADE). The recent rediscovery of I, MARQUIS DE SADE adds to this eclectic list Richard Hilliard, the writer and cinematographer THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, and it may very well have been the first of the de Sade-influenced films out of the gate, sporting a 1967 copyright date, the same year as Brook’s MARAT/SADE.
I, MARQUIS DE SADE was long thought lost, so there was no real way of knowing how it stacked up against such diverse company. Fortunately, a print of the film was recently unearthed in Sweden, and Retromedia, in conjunction with Bay View Entertainment, have brought the film to DVD. We can now cross another unknown title off of our film lists to discover that I, MARQUIS DE SADE can be ranked among the least loyal to its’ source material self-identifying title with the likes of I, ROBOT.
That’s not to say that I, MARQUIS DE SADE is a disinteresting film, or one that should have stayed buried. (To be fair, I’m inclined to believe that no film is deserving of total obscurity.) It’s just that it fits more in the realm of a typical late ‘60s roughie, and would feel like a natural double-bill on a Something Weird DVD, paired with something from Doris Wishman or Roberta Findlay. Even as a “roughie,” and especially one based on the works of the Marquis de Sade, the film is pretty tame, offering only occasional glimpses of female flesh and virtually none of the sadism that the Marquis provided his name for.
The film starts out compellingly enough, as Sheldon Pearson plays a translator (the opening credits, written on a woman’s body, list him as “Donald Marquis,” though he’s not given a name in the film) hired to translate the works of the Marquis in order to prove that they are obscene for a court case. His obsessively grim narration lets us know how morally repulsed he is with the idea of sending someone to prison for obscenity, and compounded by his awaiting a call from his doctor regarding the results of some tests, he becomes more fascinated by his material, resulting in a series of hallucinations with himself as the Marquis himself.
The first of these hallucinations provide a little bit of sadism, as we see Donald-as-Marquis haphazardly whipping a topless girl with a reed. The second involves Donald whipping of his glasses in the middle of the street, suddenly transforming into the ruffle-shirted Marquis a la Clark Kent, and then flying through the air! Things get more bizarre from there, as Donald becomes diagnosed with cancer, quits translating, and becomes a rent boy of sorts to a wealthy heavyset woman he refers to as “The Hippo” and “Queen Walrus,” whom he meets while wandering around a pier.
Now free of duties, with access to a fortune and occasionally influenced by the writings he gave up on reading, Donald hangs around a beach talking to a woman who keeps changing every subject, and pretends to be a filmmaker, hiring a stripper (I believe this is MONDO TOPLESS’s Babette Bardot, though the credits list all of the women as “The Girls”) to perform for him. He hangs out with a pair of ladies that he at first mistakes for a mother and daughter but turn out to be a lesbian couple, who begin making out at one point, but the film cuts away before anything particularly explicit. Donald’s anxieties come to a head in the violent (though not gory) climax, followed by a twist ending that makes you wonder what the hell that was all about.
A strange mess that isn’t really lurid enough to be much interest to the “roughie” crowd, I, MARQUIS DE SADE is still an oddly compelling film thanks to the artistic pretentions of Hilliard. Backed by some of the most negative narration this side of BLAST OF SILENCE (we get a full three minutes of Donald fuming that the stripper is running late), Hilliard fills the film with reaction shots and more near-misses than anything resembling sex, so much that the whole thing reeks more of a story of sexual frustration rather than one of sadism and bondage.
Apparently understanding the limitations of the lack of sync sound, Hilliard rarely shows actual dialogue on screen, relying on the cynical narration interspaced with quotes from the Marquis’s work that seem to be from a different, uncredited voice. Fortunately, Hilliard has a good eye to compensate, and gives the film some unique camera angles and unexpected imagery that would be at home in an artier project. With the minimal sex, the film is almost closer to Joseph Strick’s ROAD MOVIE than it is to the likes of the OLGA trilogy, though ultimately, it doesn’t have enough ideas to be satisfying as an art-house film, nor is it lurid enough to be satisfying as sexploitation.
For all I know, this may have been Hilliard’s intent – so much of the film reeks of frustration that it may very well have been made as a more experimental film with some breasts in it to make it easier to sell. Some back story on the film would have been nice, but the only extra features are the original theatrical trailer, which is nice, and an unrelated nudie short called HOLLYWOOD BEAUTIES, in which a girl steals the clothes of two women at gunpoint, and then changes on the street.
Retromedia presents the film in its’ 1.66:1 ratio, which I have no reason to believe is incorrect, though the non-anamorphic transfer does no favors to the presentation on a big screen television. While the transfer itself is a bit on the soft side, the film is perfectly watchable with no major signs of grain. All in all, as much of an inexplicable film as I, MARQUIS DE SADE is, it’s nice to see it getting a release at all, though the packaging used, depicting a naked young woman in handcuffs, doesn’t represent the film at all – why not use the original ad campaign?
- Paul Freitag-Fey